In a Washington press conference co-hosted by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society in October 21, 2002 the existence of the James Ossuary was announced. The ossuary, a 2000-year old chalk box for the internment of human bones, had an Aramaic inscription on it: Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua – translated as “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”.
An ossuary is a depository for storing bones of the dead. They were used by Jews primarily during the first century, as part of the belief in the eminent arriving of the Messiah, and a wish to preserve the earthly remains until that time. Jews during the end of the Second Temple Period were mainly interred in burial caves, which had one or a few burial chambers with burial niches carved into the walls of the chambers. The bodies of the deceased were first laid on a bench in the burial chamber and left for a couple of years to decompose. Then the remaining bones were gathered from the benches and put into ossuaries – which were laid to rest in the niches around the chambers. Some of the ossuaries were elaborately decorated with carvings, most of them were plain. Many of them had inscriptions on them, giving the name of the deceased and, sometimes, adding an epitaph. Some of the inscriptions were professional carved with carefully formed letters, others were just scratched in with a knife, by the laborers whose task it was to gather the bones.
The largest group of ossuaries known to us today comes from Jerusalem, where the custom of second burial was most prevalent. To date nearly 900 burial caves have been indentified around the city, in which hundreds of ossuaries were found. 216 of them have names carved on them, including three with the name “Jesus son of Joseph” – two very common names during the first century. Only two mention a brother of the deceased.
In 1980 a burial cave with 10 ossuaries was discovered, on the ridge south of Jerusalem. Six of the ossuaries had names of the deceased inscribed on them: Yehoshua bar Yoseph (Jesus son of Joseph), Maria, Miramne, Mati; Yoffe; and Yehuda bar Yehsu (Judah son of Jesus). The fact that the names are all related to Jesus and his family has aroused a lot of public interest.
The James Ossuary surfaced suddenly in 2002, in the hands of an Israeli antiquities collector, called Oded Golan. Its existence became public when an article by André Lemaire, a Semitic epigrapher, in the November/December issue of Biblical Arcaeological Review claimed that the ossuary and its inscription were authentic. Lemaire, who lives in Paris, was initially invited by Golan, to view the ossuary in his Apartment. Lemaire determined that the inscription was not incised with modern tools, and even though the first part of the inscription, “James son of Joseph,” seems more deeply incised than the latter “brother of Jesus,” this, he concluded, may be due to the inscription being made at a different time, or due to differences in the hardness of the limestone. This difference between the first and second part of the inscription has been the basis of the challenge to the authenticity of the inscription. While nearly all researchers agree that the ossuary itself is original, the heated debate is about the authenticity of the inscription, all of it, or the latter part of it.
In October 2002 the James ossuary toured Canada, attracting thousands of the curious and faithful. Some visitors kneeled in quiet prayer. At the same time the Israel Antiquities Authority began looking into the source and authenticity of Golan’s ossuary, and police detectives, along with a growing posse of biblical scholars, began putting together a case against Golan. After a two-year investigation, in December 2004, Golan and four others were charged of forgery, alleging that the James ossuary was a clever fake and that Golan had masterminded an international ring of thieves that over the past 20 years had duped major museums and collectors out of millions.
On June 18, 2003 the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) published a report concluding that the inscription is a modern forgery. Specifically, it claimed that the inscription was added in modern times and made to look old by addition of a chalk solution. In 2006, Dr. Wolfgang E. Krumbein, from the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, analyzed the ossuary, and concluded that the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s conclusion “…originate[s] from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control…” and more.
In February 2007 Golan went on trial in the Jerusalem District Court. Presiding over the trial was Judge Aharon Farkash, who has a degree in archaeology. 75 of the world’s top archaeological experts were called in by the prosecution and the defense to testify, with a tie between those who claimed the inscription was authentic, and those who claimed it was forged.
On March 14, 2012, Golan was convicted of illegal trading in antiquities, but acquitted of the forgery charges because: “that there is no evidence that any of the major artifacts were forged, and that the prosecution failed to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt.” This acquittal, added the judge, “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago.”
Since the dawn of faith the quest for material evidence of historical events and figures has attracted wide public interest. Relics of apostles, prophets and saints already began to surface in the Byzantine Era. Since the dawn of archaeology, in the 19th century, modern investigation has added a scientific patina to these yearnings. But the court room is not the place to prove the authenticity of 2000-year-old artifacts, especially if their provenance is unknown. What we can say is that the James Ossuary is indeed from around the year 60, the time of death of James the Brother of Jesus. Is the inscription authentic, is this the very reliquary in which the bones of Saint James were interned? This will have to remain a matter of faith, religious or academic, as these matters have been for thousands of years.